Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for April 2010

reaching out

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Soon to be made public, after the last details are finalized.

In about a month, in the afternoon of June 19th, at Fort Dupont in the National Park in Anacostia, there will be a concert given at the open-air theater there. The concert is being called “Opera In Color”, and is a presentation of selections from operatic works by black composers. The concert is being given as pat of the day’s “Juneteenth Community Celebration”, which is being sponsored by the Education Department of the Washington National Opera. The selections will be performed by members of the cast from WNO’s recent production of Porgy & Bess.

This is the first presentation of an education initiative that has hopes of becoming an annual event, as well as an ongoing opportunity to reach deeper into DC communities.

In a gift of luck, I have found myself involved in fashioning the program for this first concert event, and meeting some very supportive people along the way.

To my mind there are any number of black composers, working in the art form of opera, who should be on a list of presentation and given platform. Some names come out of history, and some others are contemporary. Working within the bounds of a specific amount of performance time, and wanting to present something of a ‘time line’ of composers and progression, I identified Clarence Cameron White and William Grant Still, as an appropriate place to start.

Clarence Cameron White’s opera, Ouanga, was written in 1931. A copy of the score is in the Library Of Congress, where I’ve been spending some time, researching composers, and pouring over the Library’s incredible collection of scores, artifacts and memorabilia. There are many distinctions to this opera, but one of the most interesting and important is that Ouanga was performed on May 27th, 1956, at the old Metropolitan Opera House, which was at 39th & Broadway, in New York,  and was presented by the National Negro Opera Company, which was a resident company in Washington, DC, run by the indomitable Mary Cardwell Dawson. What is incredible to note in this, is that the performance occurred just over a year after Marian Anderson’s historic debut, of January 7, 1955, on that same Met stage.

Reaching out to William Grant Still Music, I found my inquiry answered by the composer’s daughter, Judith Anne Still, who was very responsive to the idea of the program, and kindly offered us selections from her father’s opera Troubled Island for presentation. Composed in 1939, to a libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey, the opera premiered at the New York City Opera on March 31, 1949. This event marked the first time that such a substantive work, by a black composer, was presented by a major opera company.

Looking to platform some contemporary works, I reached out to the composer Jeffrey Mumford, who is a native of Washington, DC, and an internationally esteemed composer and educator who has taught at the Washington Conservatory of Music. In addition to his compositional activities, Jeffrey is presently Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lorain County Community College, in Ohio, where he is engaged in building a Composition Program, as well as running a concert series, called “Signature Series”.

Jeffrey was also very engaged by the concept of the Opera In Color Concert, and kindly offered two vocal pieces, for mezzo and piano for inclusion.

Bruce Taylor, head of the WNO Education Department, reached out to the celebrated composer, and virtuoso performer,  Anthony Davis, and received selections from the composer’s opera Amistad.

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The day’s events are free of charge. I will link information on the event in upcoming blog posts, and as items are finalized.

A very important journey begins with this concert, plat-forming black composers presenting themselves in an art form often deemed archaic, if not exclusively white and European, to show the veins of vitality, innovation and individuality, in subject matter and musical language, that moves forward through the form, and strives to communicate aspects of black history, black artistry and contemporary social dialogue, in a medium that reaches a world view.

teaching

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…though the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, life seems not to always offer that option. In fact, straight lines tend to only work on paper.

Teaching had never been in the plot of the course I’d laid out for myself. But here I am, a Guest Artist teacher, working with elementary school kids, and teaching them how to create their own librettos, as they create their own operas.

This year’s opera that students had to deconstruct, to construct a resonant alternative to, was Verdi’s Falstaff –a comedy, but a very well written, grown up one, whose libretto was crafted by a librettist, Arrigo Boito, at the top of his ability, collaborating with a composer at the peak of his acuity.

Shakespeare may have been the kickoff point for both composer and librettist, but for the five elementary school classes I worked with, humor came from their own well of imagination.

Here is a taste of the storylines that they came up with.

From a 5th grade class: Falstaff is a girl, named Falstaffa, who lives a very lazy life of self-indulgence. After ignoring her mother’s instruction to clear up her room, Falstaffa is told to make her home somewhere else! Leaving the house, Falstaffa can only focus on the rumbling of her stomach, and decides that she can think about a place to stay later, but at the moment –where to eat is a priority! She decides to call up one of her boyfriends and get him to take her out to dinner. She does so, and the suggestion goes down so well, that she decides ‘two meals’ would be better than one, and so she calls another boyfriend, and finds herself being taken out to two meals –at the same restaurant! The result is a comedy of pride, gluttony, and very bad manners, but comes to an appropriate resolution of both boyfriends handing Falstaffa the check, and then leaving her.

From a 4th grade class: Falstaff works at Dunkin’ Donuts. One morning, as he’s putting out the donuts, he decides that they look too good not to have a taste. He takes a bite out of one, then another, putting them back having satisfied his need for a nibble. Alice and Meg come in, and Falstaff winds up serving them the two donuts he’s bitten into! The ladies call over the Manager, who berates Falstaff, and then fires him. As he leaves, all Falstaff can do is bemoan the fact that he won’t have free donuts to taste anymore. The ladies overhear this, and determine that he’s not learned enough of a lesson; they follow him home, and observe Falstaff, sitting in his living room, pining for his lovely donut tasting job. He remembers the variety of tastes he would have in a shift, and is suddenly doing his ‘donut dance’! The ladies, observing this, decide to make mischief; they call him on the phone, and say that they’ve been told that he loves donuts, and that they are producing a donut commercial the next day, and want him to come and be the spokesperson. Falstaff is delighted, and agrees. The next day, Meg and Alice get their accomplices together: there are 2 camera people, a few dancers, and Alice’s husband, Mister Ford. They are all put into whacky costumes, and wait for their victim. When Falstaff comes, Alice tells him that he is going to be tempted by a gazillion donuts, but to have one he has to make them all laugh. They will film him trying to make them laugh, and that will be the commercial. Falstaff is eager, and the temptation begins! The extras circle the seated Falstaff, each holding a box, of a dozen variety pack, of Dunkin’ Donuts! The smell is intoxicating, and Falstaff tries everything he can to grab one of the passing donuts –but fails at every attempt. Soon, the effort is too much, and he is weakened by the smell of all those lovely, tasty donuts, passing right under his nose! He begins to sway with hunger and delirium. As Meg and Alice lean in to whisper, in both of his ears, “I am greedy”, and “I am selfish”, Falstaff begins to repeat the words, almost swooning with hunger. Soon he has the rhythm of the chant, and is swaying, crooning out his worst characteristics –to the approving laughter of everyone else. Realizing that he’s finally got them all laughing, Falstaff launches into his ‘donut dance’, as the camera people film him, and the others put him in a ‘tv frame’, showing the moment caught for You Tube!

..working with these various creative, imaginative, young collaborators may not have been in my original line of vision, but the unexpected has definitely enriched the journey!

(Everything in the world’s a jest.

Man is born a jester

buffetted this way and that

by his beliefs or his reason.

We all are figures of fun.

Every mortal laughs at the others.

But he laughs best

who has the final laugh.]

some FAQS

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some FAQS

…hard to believe as it may be, writers have quirks. Here are some I will fess up to:

The title comes first. If I have the title, I can write the play..

Characters emerge after the title, and usually cross the back of my eyes already named..

I’ve written over 30 plays and have never used a title, subject, or character name twice –though I have gone back to revisit a character once..

Every scene, has a tempo; I have headphones on, listening to music as I write; what music I’m listening to depends on the energy I need for the scene… and the selections can change innumerable times in a single page, moving from Shostakovich, to Ellington, to Britten, to Beyonce, to Schreker, to Kander & Ebb, to Verdi, to Eartha Kitt, to Strauss..

I write from beginning to end, and never start in the middle..

Once I have the title, I know the arc of the piece…

Even though I know the arc of the piece, the characters may take me somewhere else along the way.. at which point, there is an inevitable moment of panic and exhilaration..

I trust my characters.. even when they challenge me.. though I don’t know that I especially like them then..

I am a very disciplined writer.

If I am just starting a piece, writing occurs in the morning; if I’m in the ‘chute’, I write as and when the current dictates..

I know I’ve connected to something when I feel the pull, tightening behind my belly button.. and adrenalin at the hinge of my jaw..

I stay away from coffee at this point..

I edit as I go along, having learned that first lesson: keeping a line, or scene, because it’s clever, is not about the story, but the ego..

I seem to always feel the next thing I write will be the best thing I’ve written.. a habit that tends to diminish achievement..

Being called to the stage after a performance, for a ‘talk back’ session, is an uncomfortable spotlight..

In all honesty…talent is not enough. And platform is not the entire answer. Finding a subject to write that dips into the zeitgeist is a great assist, but is still no guarantee of presentation -no matter how often your characters curse, naked. In truth.. it’s having a discipline to work, luck, perseverance and always denying the word “no”.

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

April 24, 2010 at 8:57 AM

some other parts

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..I’ve always loved mythology, fables, and the tales of the Brother’s Grimm.

When I first started writing, my effort came out as pieces of fiction, and I wound up writing something for my cousin’s kids, who were 8, 10 and 11 at the time. It is a modern Grimm fairy tale called A candle in the quarry. It is about a little boy who finds out that he has the power to do magic, and then is taken on an incredible journey by his grandmother, a woman he always disliked –until he found out that she was a real witch, and had much to teach him.

…while in London, a neighbor and friend of mine, Francesca Phillips, having read the story to her daughter, Daisy, and feeling it could make a good indie film, asked if she could direct a teaser, and see if she could scare up some backing to then film the whole thing.

It was a great chance for the piece, and also for me to dabble in screenwriting. We reached out to various friends, finding a location, and included the family of the house we overran in the opening dinner sequence.

It was a lot of fun creating, and still sends a bit of a chill…

..there are other things which, for me, touch the spine and heart, sending chills as well..

The beauty of creating, whether it is through music, singing, writing, painting, film or some other medium, is a gift of communication.. And should be shared..

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

April 22, 2010 at 8:31 AM

ripples

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..in the period after meeting Philip Rose, Breathing Ash received several opportunities for workshop, and though each was well attended, and the play provoked all kinds of engaged conversation and interest, it had a visual component which, ultimately, was too challenging to produce.

I was left to consider how else I might engage a producer, or theatre company, to get involved with bringing the triptych to some kind of berth.

Though Breathing Ash seemed timely, as we approached 2006, it was the middle ‘panel’ of the triptych. I began to think of finding a way of having someone consider The Orion, which was the first panel. In it I established the story of 2 main characters that subsequently appear in Ash, and though there is a multi-media dimension to the work, it is a more straightforward presentation in the scheme of the plotline.

…while puzzling how I could get such a piece to the attention of an adventurous and willing company, I found myself at a birthday party, where I met Valerie Smaldone, one of the warmest guardian angels I’ve ever know. Valerie and I wound up speaking almost through the entire event, plunging into conversations on theatre, media, the economy, television, health care, and how life may sometimes give you lemons, but how it also can have unexpected moments of serendipity, which throw open French doors onto a whole new vista of possibilities.

At the time, Valerie was gearing up for a very special project presentation –producing the play of a friend of hers, Amy Coleman, called Spit It Out! The play was going to be on at Etcetera Etcetera restaurant on West 44th Street, in NY. Valerie was also acting in the piece, and asked if I’d be interested in coming to see the show. I was very interested –but life intervened, and I wasn’t able to make the show until the last evening’s performance.

When I got to the restaurant, I was shown upstairs to a makeshift cabaret theater; small cocktail tables were tightly grouped in the room, with a thin artery of space available for people to move through, getting in and out of the seating area. I have a habit of being early to anywhere I’m meant to be, and as I was shown to my own small table, I noticed most of the other tables were already tight with parties of 4 or more people. But there was one other table, with a single person at it, and within a few minutes the manager was slinging us together to share it, so he could accommodate a group of 8 that had arrived.

Once settled, we introduced ourselves to one another, his name was Joe Cacaci, and then starting making wry talk about the huddle happening about us, and the probability of the manager prying in another few tables. Our conversation soon wandered off the track and into politics, which then veered to the subject of New York, before giving us opportunity to ask what we did when not seeing plays. I told him, “I’m a playwright.” To which Joe responded, with a chuckle, “I’m a director.”

Then Joe asked about my work. Not knowing how to do things by halves, I wound up starting a conversation on how discouraging it was trying to get companies to look at new work, which slipped into a moan about the lack of such impresarios as Joe Papp -at the mention of whose name, Joe Cacaci lets lose a grin and admits that he once worked for the man, and also found the style and intuition and guidance of such men, as Joe Papp, a forgotten art of mentoring. We really started talking theatre then, and he told me stories of The Public, Shakespeare In The Park, and, with as much wit as reverence, let me in on some anecdotes of Papp’s working method and no nonsense drive.

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Joe Cacaci then brought me back to speaking about my work, and listened with great interest, nodding at the dilemma I described in finding companies unwilling to put in abeyance the question of whether or not adding multi-media to a play made it a film. Joe seemed to agree with my position that American playwrights had to be allowed to fumble with the toys of technology, and create a new vein of storytelling which not only embraced the challenges of the millennium, but also could speak to a deepening youth market entirely steeped in technological multi-tasking, who would find the staid wrestle of ‘is it film, or is it theater’ a numbingly boring argument to use so as not to play with the toys at hand!

All the cabaret tables were thick with occupants when our conversation came back to the evening’s entertainment, and Joe admitted, “I know one of the actresses, and I’ve been promising to come. Luckily I saw the flier on the refrigerator door this evening, saying tonight was the last show, so I hoofed it down here.” I said I knew one of them too –and, as if on queue, we both said, “Valerie Smaldone.”

The evening was great, and when Valerie came off the stage at the end of the show, she seemed happy to find us at the same table, and said to us, “That’s so terrific. I wanted the two of you to meet.”

…that connection, that conversation, that serendipitous gift of Valerie’s, precipitated my working with The Berkshire Playwrights Lab, this past September, and receiving a workshop presentation of The Orion, directed by Joe Cacaci.

build it and they will come

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Theater, of this new millennium, is having a bit of a hard time settling itself in to being “new” –which is something of an old issue.

What we need as impetus are new houses that facilitate the thinking and technology of the next millennium, which should offer impetus for production companies to nurture artists who can speak the tongue of this new ‘black box’.

A internet site I was turned on to is TED: ideas worth spreading. A good friend, who has had years of watching me create works, seemingly meant for an audience of the future, sent me a link to a particular seminar given by Joshua Prince-Ramus, a stellar American architect whose vision for a build’s function is so radically organic, purposeful, collaborative and specific, that it reinvigorates the entire purpose of building.

In this lecture, he speaks of architecture of the future, but, more specifically, about the design he created for the Wyly Theater, at the New Dallas Theater Center.

This is the home of a new blend of theatre; a black box, whose very skin is part of the performance, and whose bones bear more than a stage. It is, for me, the greatest indication of hope, that a company will take a journey with an architect that moves them from a preconceived mindset, to a “wonder space” for creating a unique venue of entertainment and commerce.

The whole lecture runs a little over 18:00. It is an incredible tour into the future of building function –but I know the days are long, and time is tight –so if you wish, just start at time code 5:34.

This site is full of wonderful, inspiring, jaw dropping conversations on development, commerce, creativity, collaboration, science and humanity. Have a look.

moments of funny and fun

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There are many moments of funny and fun working with kids, especially when you don’t expect it..

…last year, after a ‘prop malfunction’ in the scene where Carmen throws Don Jose a flower.. I was with 5th graders, in their school, at the outset of working with them on their retelling of the Carmen story, when one student, asked how he enjoyed the opera’s presentation, responded in complete annoyance: “I didn’t like it. Carmen was supposed to throw a flower to Don Jose, and she threw a plastic apple instead. She can’t do that. The flower is foreshadowing!”

…this year, facing a group of 4th graders, and speaking with the student who is playing Falstaff in the class’ retelling of Falstaff, I suggest a detail of acting, where he lets the girl of his affections know that he’s infatuated, by reaching to touch her hand. All 7 years of the kid took a step back –raised his hands in objection, and regarding me with complete affront, said: “Look. I’ve got boundaries.”

There is other fun to be had in this.. cartoons!

…and when the laughing dies down, there is the fun of the real thing..

..but by the end of the journey, there are smiles all around, and the hope of more!

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

April 14, 2010 at 5:08 PM